I Curse the River of Time Paperback
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Petterson's novel is a portrait of the layered relationship between a 37-year-old man and his mother; he is on the verge of divorce, she has just discovered that she has cancer. The story swings between the present and the past as it dissects the nature of their relationship, particularly the way he disappointed her by leaving college (and the life she believed it augured for him) to pursue industrial labor in solidarity with the communist movement that held him in its sway.
Petterson is a fine writer and a brilliant, compassionate observer. There is an incredibly moving passage where the main character, Arvid, remembers a scene at Ullevål Hospital, where one of his brothers was dying, hooked up to a ventilator. the main character, Arvid, Consider this, the main character's memory of events surrounding the death of one of his brothers. He walks into the brother's hospital room, and his parents are both there with his brother. He thinks: "... I could not recall a single thing we had shared. No confidences exchanged between us, not in recent years certainly, and not when we were children either. And that could not be right. It was all there if only I could concentrate hard enough, but inside my brain there was something inattentive, some slippery patch of Teflon, where things that came swirling in and struck it bounced off again and were gone, a fickleness of mind. I was not paying attention, things happened and were lost. Important things." In that same recollection, Arvid reflects on an "inappropriate smile" on the face of his father, who was also there in the hospital room. "... I suddenly realized that he was embarrassed, that the expression I could see on his face, in his eyes, his faint smile, was embarrassment, and this while his third son was lying there dying just a few metres from him, or perhaps was already dead. And I was like my father was, we looked like each other, we were made from the same mould, I had always heard, and just like him, I too was embarrassed. I did not know death so close up, death was a stranger, and it made me embarrassed. I did not want to stay. I had just come in, but now I wanted out. I had no idea what to say and neither did my father, and our eyes met across the room, and we looked away at once and it made me feel so resigned and bitter, almost."
To my mind, that is exquisite writing -- so taut, so moving, so real. There are other passages of this quality in the book. Near the very end, for example, Arvid talks to his mother about her fear of dying, and he knows that he, too, is scared, not of being dead but of the dying itself, "the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone fo ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember."
In sum, there is much to be admired in this novel. Petterson is a sensitive and thoughtful observer of the human condition, and his characters feel so real because of the finger-on-pulse quality of his writing. But in my view, this is a case of a character-driven novel that needs a little more ooomph to push it along.
First, it is no small feat to fashion a moving novel using a narrator who is deeply flawed and perhaps even one might say, a perennial child. Arvid has, perhaps as a small recompense, the clarity of a child, allowing Petterson to employ his astonishing ability to make us see through Arvid's (usually) clear eyes. My favorite of many descriptive jewels "the peculiar thunk of a monkey wrench on the bench". Arvid's Scandinavia both within and without may be dark but Peterson lets us see every shade of grey and feel every fleeting glint of sunshine on the sea. I don't think I know of another author who can make me `see' so clearly and so often the world in which his characters swim (or sink). I would guess that most of this novel's words are devoted to describing the physical surroundings of a scene, usually as a character sees them. This creates an illusion of a world into which the reader can convincingly enter (and cannot easily escape)..sort of like `real life'.
And how many of us have lived in such families as his, where emotion, especially love, is so submerged beneath shyness and forgotten wounds and a northern reserve? I cringed in recognition more often than I would like to admit. Petterson somehow uses these failures to let the reader in fact see deeply into family dynamics (or at least intuit them) even though the characters often speak little more than a sentence or two at a time, and often don't even finish a thought.
In the end, I came to care for Arvid: too sensitive, too unskilled, too perennially a child to survive a world that presents him with the huge problems we pretend are `normal': divorce, alienation, death, lack of a good job, or a warm coat. Perhaps Petterson is reminding us of how unbearable these are for a `natural' man with few defenses or artifices. What must it do to realize that you (perhaps) love your mother far more than she loves you?
"Nothing happens" in this novel, readers complain. Well,life happens on every page of this extraordinary little book. Petterson invites us through Arvid (and most every other character) to see it for the unforgiving place it often is. What greater gift can a writer give us?
As the novel begins, Arvid's mother has just discovered that she has a recurrence of cancer, and she has decided to take the ferry from Norway back to her "home," on Jutland. Arvid has had a testy relationship with his mother over the years and has not talked with her in a while, trying to avoid telling her that he and his wife are getting a divorce, but when he gets a message that his mother has left home, he, too, takes the ferry to Jutland to see her. During this time, he is inundated with memories, which come, seemingly at random, from different times in his life.
Throughout, however, Arvid returns to stories of his mother, who, though hard pressed for cash herself, still gave him money when he was in college, but who, when he decided to leave college and give up his chance to escape the kind of life she and her husband had been living, smacked him, hard, across his face. On his trip to Jutland, he sees constant change and sees that even the "permanence" of the local cemetery is impermanent: a grave marker is routinely vandalized. Homely details and intense descriptions of nature give weight and importance to Arvid's experiences and what they reveal of him.
Though Arvid is coolly reserved and often tamps down his feelings, the reader comes to know him, understanding his mixed feelings about his mother while also recognizing his need for her, accepting his distance from his father while regretting their lack of connection, accepting his decisions even when they seem to be wrong for him, and seeing the effects of change upon him at every stage of his life. Often ineffective in his actions, clumsy in expressing his inner feelings, especially in matters of love, and unable to give himself fully to others, Arvid lacks the stature of a "hero." It is in this very characteristic, however-his imperfect humanity-that he comes to life, becoming a character so real that even the author has said (in an inteview on PowellsBooks), "Sometimes I call him not my alterego but my stunt man." Mary Whipple
To Siberia: A Novel
Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
Petterson's overall tone as well as his more complex stylistic tweaks shone through to me despite the book being a translation, a point deserving of much appreciation as the style to me is what really lets this novel come across as something with tremendous emotional resonance and staying power.
I've heard Petterson's prose described as `spare', and while I want to agree with that I feel inclined to describe it more specifically as `emotionally spare'; this has nothing to do with the emotions perhaps described in some way or in the emotions almost certainly felt by the reader (true for this reader, at least), but `spare' in the sense that I never felt Petterson was trying or even wanted to be trying to browbeat be into feeling a certain way. Sure the story given and which sub-stories we're given point us a certain direction, this is far from a feel-good novel, but these complex emotions come about through this text not by brute force but with a subtle finesse. I've noted the importance of this style because it's coupled with a story that is so full of sadness and loneliness that it'd have been terribly easy to let melodrama reign supreme, providing a story so overdone it's essentially cliche. But the spareness, the temporal shifts and other well-worked mechanisms keep the narrative almost cruelly restrained, leaving this reader feeling as far away and lonely as poor Arvid.
Speaking of our narrator, Arvid seems as far away from the events around him as the reader. His divorce, his failed socio-political aspirations, his dying mother and otherwise distant and non-existent family-Arvid seems to grasp this distance as well and works the entire novel to overcome it, seeming desperate at all turns to not necessarily find his way back to any so-called halcyon days, but to at least bridge the gap long enough to share in something meaningful with his mother before her imminent death, even while she seems to be to be looking for her own final moments in another direction, truly as distant from Arvid as he feels from her.
Petterson's descriptions and overall narrative movements do exactly what they need do: keep things moving and stitched together without detracting from the characters and their vastly complex emotions and interactions. This is key as it's these complexities, never resolved nicely, that fill the novel beginning to end and make it such a beautifully troubling novel to finish. I don't believe it spoils anything to say that Petterson is a writer uninterested in happy endings and all their simplistic, annoying facades.